Saturday, June 27, 2009

Perfidious Albion

A curious feature of the late insurgency in Iran has been the tendency of Iranian officials to blame the popular uprising not on the United States or Israel, but Great Britain. Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki, for instance, claimed that the British government instigated the demonstrations in Teheran and other cities by sending 747s full of security agents to Iran. It appears that Iranian cultural and religious leaders have long viewed Perfidious Albion as the great puppet-master responsible for their nation's political and economic ills. In 1951 the nationalist Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, told Averall Harriman to beware of the British: "You don't know how crafty they are. You don't know how evil they are." Almost thirty years later, the Shah and his followers charged Britain - in particular, the BBC, which had given airtime to the Ayatollah Khomenei - with starting the 1979 revolution in order to drive up the price of oil, which would increase the profitability of North Sea Oil. (William Shawcross, The Shah's Last Ride [New York, 1988], 64 [quote], 227, 343.) Since the revolution, Christopher Hitchens recently noted, the theocracy's staged demonstrations against foreign powers have inevitably included denunciations of Britain. A member of the state's Guardian Council even claimed a few years ago that the British government had organized the London terror bombings of 7/7/05.

Some of the historical causes of Iranian Anglophobia are obvious: Britain spent a good part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meddling in Iran's domestic affairs. British firms secured substantial economic concessions in Persia under the Qajar dynasty, including control of the kingdom's banking and oil industries. Britain also joined Russia in invading and occupying Iran during World War Two, to prevent the nation from becoming a German ally, and in 1953 MI6 joined the CIA in a covert operation that toppled Mossadegh and made the Shah an absolute monarch. The intensity of the Iranian government's anti-British sentiment, however, is hard to fathom given that the regime has two more dangerous and well-armed foreign adversaries, namely America and Israel. Perhaps the sentiment is a byproduct of a historical dynamic mentioned by Ali Ansari: Iran first entered formal diplomatic relations with Britain at a time when Persian power was declining and British power was increasing. Iranian political and cultural leaders might well have drawn the conclusion that this shift in power was due to British conspiracies - and their historical experience of British exploitation and intervention could only have confirmed the hypothesis.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Scholarship That Sparkles in the Sun

Yes, it's true: there is a forthcoming anthology about the relationship between history (as a scholarly discipline) and America's favorite series of young-adult novels about chastely attractive Mormon vampires. The editor, Prof. Nancy Reagin of Pace University, is "looking for essays that historicize Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series...or analyz[e] how popular historical understandings inform the series." Her suggested list of topics includes:

* "Masculine honor and gender roles in Edward’s world and Bella’s"
* "Marriage and courtship in Edward’s youth"
* Essays that connect characters in the novels to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest and South America, and
* "The Volturi, art patronage, and politics in Italian history." (A.K.A. "Jacob Burkhardt Wants To Drink Your Blood.")

I don't have much to add, except to note that Prof. Reagin is, perhaps, being a bit too charitable toward the TWILIGHT novels, whose plots and characterization are, by some accounts, crudely and even violently misogynistic. (See this summary of the series if you don't believe me.) A more daring or subversive cultural critic might instead ask whether the views of courtship, marriage, and child-bearing that Prof. Meyer is trying to impress upon her readers, who are mostly impressionable teenage girls, are conservative, reactionary, or batshit insane. But then, we historians are often too impressed with celebrity to take any risks criticizing it. We leave that to young people.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Federalist-Themed Windfall

This afternoon, Heritage Auction Galleries will auction in Dallas, for a current minimum bid of $30,000, a 1788 first edition of Volume One of The Federalist Papers. The book is the property of Nathan Harlan, a National Guard captain from Granger, Indiana, who purchased it in 1990 (while he was in high school) for seven dollars. In recognition of Capt. Harlan's forthcoming deployment to Iraq, the auction house has waived its usual commission, so Harlan will make a significant profit on the sale: about $770 for each of the 39 essays in that volume.

Update, 10 PM EDT: The final selling price was $80,000 - so make that $2,051 per essay.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Ograbme, Part III

When Congress ended the Embargo in 1809, it replaced it with a law temporarily banning all American trade with Britain and France. American port inspectors were then surprised by the number of vessels heading for such obscure ports-of-call as Tonningen, Saint Bartholomew island, and Fayal, in the Azores. Herbert Heaton suggests that these captains were bending the truth a little: they may indeed have intended briefly to stop in their declared destinations, but their final destinations were more lucrative ports in Europe and the West Indies. (Heaton, "Non-Importation," 192.) The new - and easily evaded - non-intercourse act lasted for a year before Congress replaced it with the more flexible (but ultimately unworkable) Macon's Bill No. 2, then with a straightforward ban on British imports, which lasted until Congress declared war on Britain.

Jefferson and his colleagues had hoped the Embargo would inaugurate a new era of "peaceable coercion" in international relations - a "republican alternative" to war. The limited resources of the early American state, however, combined with the ancient ingenuity of American merchants, almost by themselves guaranteed that the experiment would fail.*

* Well, more or less. The British government did finally repeal its trade restrictions in 1812, but Congress didn't receive this news until after it had declared war on Britain.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Ograbme, Part II

Herbert Heaton, in his old but well-researched (and wryly humorous) article "Non-Importation, 1806-1812," observed that even during the Embargo, when American trade with foreign nations was illegal, an enormous quantity of British goods entered the United States - 3.9 million pounds sterling worth in 1808 alone. This was half as much merchandise as Britain exported to the U.S. in 1807, but the figure should have been zero. Heaton suspects that most of these goods were carried in American ships that had cleared port and headed across the Atlantic before the Embargo took effect. Some may have left after that date: at least one port inspector, in New Orleans, didn't enforce the Embargo for six weeks after he learned of it. (Journal of Economic History 1 [November 1941]: 183, 189-191.)

To the extent that most American merchants complied with the Embargo, they did so because they could exploit legal loopholes like these - or because they expected it to last no more than a year. At the end of 1808, as the anniversary of the Embargo Act approached, merchant ships traveled up and down the Atlantic seaboard, loading American produce (wheat, tobacco, etc.) in the expectation that they would be able to put to sea in the new year. When Congress instead passed a new law tightening the Embargo (Jan. 1809), many captains set sail in defiance of the law, knowing that the customs service and the navy lacked sufficient vessels to stop them. At least 100 Embargo-breakers reached Britain and Europe by the time Congress finally killed the "Ograbme" in March 1809.